Protect Free Speech at Public Universities

By Mississippi Center for Public Policy
July 17, 2017

Growing up in the Jackson “bubble,” I knew I wanted to try something new when it came time to attend college. I received a wonderful education at Jackson Academy, but my views were rarely challenged or debated. Attending the University of Alabama was a dream come true, and I looked forward to encountering diverse beliefs and thoughts at a top-tier school boasting more national merit finalists than any other public university. I vowed, though, that I would never lose my faith or convictions.

I vividly recall an honors college seminar taught by an outspokenly liberal professor who asked us to write about something controversial. We could cite any source but one — the Bible. We could cite the Quran, Mao’s Little Red Book or Dr. Seuss. Just not the Bible. In this professor’s opinion, the Bible was not even history; it was just fairy tales. I questioned such intolerance, arguing against my professor’s double standard. I was berated in front of the entire class. I learned then that my views were not tolerated or valued in this class. Unfortunately, mine is not an isolated case.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the University of Alabama has a speech code rating of “yellow.” This means the university has ambiguous protections for free speech. Here in Mississippi, Alcorn State and the University of Southern Mississippi have a yellow rating, whereas Ole Miss and Mississippi State University have a green rating, which indicates no serious threats to free speech. Jackson State and Delta State have red ratings, which means they have “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

Consider this “Student Life” regulation at Delta State: “Words, behavior, and/or actions which inflict mental or emotional distress on others and/or disrupt the educational environment at Delta State University are strictly prohibited.” Many things can cause “mental or emotional distress.” President Donald Trump’s election continues to be a source of great distress for some college students. Should Delta State ban students from displaying Trump bumper stickers or wearing Trump T-shirts? Will the school’s computer servers block internet sites that post pictures of Trump? A regulation prohibiting “mental or emotional distress” is too vague and could lead to administrative actions that violate students’ First Amendment rights.

While both public and private institutions should protect and encourage free speech, publicly funded universities are legally obligated to do so. The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed this First Amendment right repeatedly: including for religious speech and activities (Widmar v. Vincent (1981)). Concluded the Court: “With respect to persons entitled to be there, our cases leave no doubt that the First Amendment rights of speech and association extend to the campuses of state universities.”

Many institutions have “vice presidents of diversity” who focus solely on that issue. We see diversity based on race, gender and sexual orientation, yet not so much on diversity of thought. Most university professors identify as liberal, and many go further left than that.

A 2016 Econ Journal Watch study that analyzed faculty voter registration records found that Democrats outnumbered Republicans 12 to 1 at 40 leading U.S. universities. Such bias wouldn’t be a problem if we were on a level playing field. But all too often professors and college administrators use their positions of authority and power to intimidate and silence students like me. Many conservatives feel afraid of voicing their opinions because of the political correctness that plagues our nation’s educational system.

In addition, conservative guest speakers often face unfriendly welcomes and threats. Even former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out of a commencement address at Rutgers University after fierce opposition from students and faculty. In response, then-president Barack Obama condemned Rutgers’ intolerance. “If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions,” chided the president. “Don't feel like you got to shut your ears off because you're too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities.”

Some on the left may have become hateful and violent, as we have seen from the Steve Scalise shooting and the Black Lives Matter protests, but we have to come together to protect free speech and free association. If we want a free nation that respects all beliefs, we must demand that students have the right to express themselves as protected by the First Amendment.

Daniel Ashford is a research associate at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.


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